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DVD SAVANT

Savant Reviews:

The Firemen's Ball
&
Loves of a Blonde

Reviewed by Glenn Erickson

We know him from Hair and Ragtime, but Milos Forman made cinematic and political news in the late '60s, with his witty, irreverent, and very human Czech films. The Fireman's Ball entered the history books when it became associated with the Communist crackdown in Prague in the summer of 1968 and was 'banned forever' by the Soviet hardliners. Loves of a Blonde was Forman's earlier breakthrough picture that along with Closely Watched Trains, introduced international audiences to these Bohemian delights.


The Firemen's Ball
Criterion 145
1967 / color / 1:37 flat / 71m. / Horí, má panenko
Starring Jan Vostrcil, Josef Sebanek, Josef Valnoha, Frantisek Debelka, Josef Kolb
Cinematography Miroslav Ondrícek
Production Designer Karel Cerny
Film Editor Miroslav Hájek
Original Music Karel Mares
Writing credits Milos Forman, Jaroslav Papousek, Ivan Passer and Václav Sasek
Produced by Rudolf Hajek, Carlo Ponti
Directed by Milos Forman

A movie tailor-made for Western critics, who could praise its artfulness and at the same time trumpet its anti-Communist theme, The Fireman's Ball was an instant hit in the U.S., becoming forever associated with the artistic stand made against Soviet oppression in Czechoslovakia. Along with the allegorical animated films of Jiri Trinka  1 and a host of others, an entire liberal wing of Czechoslovensky Film was proud to be a thorn in the side of the Commies. All were promptly put out of business when the Russian tanks rolled into Prague.

Synopsis:

In their small-town meeting hall, a maladroit committee of volunteer firefighters holds a ball to celebrate the retirement of one of their own, but thanks to poor planning and lack of leadership, the evening quickly devolves into a catastrophe. Nobody can prevent the lottery prizes from being stolen out from under the very noses of those guarding them. A beauty contest turns into an embarassing farce, and the brigade can't even respond properly to a real fire next door.

Even without the production notes on this Criterion DVD, the wit of The Fireman's Ball quickly makes it obvious that the stuffy, quarreling, infantile leadership of the volunteer fire brigade represents the ruling politbureau of Communist Czechoslovakia. Everything about the ball is out of control, owing to a total lack of ethics. The very officers charged with protecting the table-ful of lottery prizes are soon revealed to be among those pilfering them. The common wisdom, as given us by Forman in his wonderful interview, is that any man who doesn't steal, isn't looking out for his family. Overconcerned with formalities and the 'dignity' of their guild, the firemen are individually argumentative and collectively incompetent. Their handling of a simple beauty contest is so badly muffed that the embarassed girls have to be dragged to the podium, and finally run shrieking to the ladies' room to hide.

Incapable of dealing with any task with subtlety or restraint, these firemen can't even put out a fire when one breaks out right under their noses. The hapless man who lost his house is rewarded with a hatful of generously-donated lottery tickets, that everyone knows have become worthless because the prizes have all been stolen. The obvious conclusion is that honesty, pride and integrity have vanished. For all the posturing of these stuffed shirts, their society is a fraud. It's every man for himself.

All this would be depressing told another way, but the events are staged so beautifully by Milos Forman & Ivan Passer (who seems to have had a big hand in Forman's Czech films) that the film becomes a celebration of small-town people. Caught stealing a big cheese display, the wife of a fireman (Milada Jezková, so great in Loves of a Blonde) acts like he's the crook for being so stupidly honest. In a movie that barely has a story, we're captivated by Forman's creation of a totally believeable 'happening' on screen. You cringe as the partygoers humiliate themselves, or when they're prevented from rushing off to put out a fire by waiters who want them to pay their bills first!

The happenings are natural, the tone is right, and all the pushy personalities, sloppy drunks and polite old geezers just have to be real. The non-actors are great, especially the contest girls. Not one is a beauty, but we like them better than the firemen because they're so natural and unaffected. The firemen behave like total dolts, ordering the girls to military attention, but ogling them like goons. They have so little natural authority, they can't even coax a nosy mother out of the contest room. Yet none of them are bad people - just foolish and dumb.

At the end, the almost-forgotten beneficiary of the party makes a short speech that puts a lump in one's throat. He has remained dignified and composed through the whole farce, and his reaction to an ultimate insult is very touching. In this pack of clowns, an old man dying of cancer is the only one who truly understands what honor is, and can speak eloquently of it. He almost redeems the idiocy around him.


Criterion's DVD of The Fireman's Ball has a great color transfer, supervised by cameraman Miroslav Ondrícek (If..., Amadeus) himself. One of the interesting interviews with director Forman spends a few minutes watching Ondrícek supervise the colorist in the transfer room.



Loves of a Blonde
Criterion 144
1966 / b&w / 1:37 flat / 90m. / Lásky jedné plavovlásky
Starring Hana Brejchová, Vladimír Pucholt, Vladimír Mensík, Ivan Kheil, Jirí Hruby, Milada Jezková, Josef Sebanek
Cinematography Miroslav Ondrícek
Production design Karel Cerny
Film Editor Miroslav Hájek
Original Music Evzen Illín
Writing credits Milos Forman, Jaroslav Papousek, Ivan Passer and Václav Sasek
Produced by Rudolf Hájek
Directed by Milos Forman

Made in b&w before The Fireman's Ball, this is even more adorable an experience. Instead of a full ensemble of endearing fools, we concentrate here mostly on one lovestruck factory girl. A big international hit, Loves of a Blonde got lots of press all over the U.S.A., helped by a provocative still of naked lovers that editors couldn't resist.

Synopsis:

Factory committee members air their worries to Army officials. Relocating soldiers to their town will create havoc among the local girls, who outnumber the local boys 16 to 1 and have to work in a dull shoe factory. At a dance, the girls are disappointed to find out that most of the soldiers are dumpy-looking older men. Andula (Hana Brejchová) and her two girlfriends have a bad time fending off the crude advances of three men in uniform, but Andula's heart is captured by the pianist with the band, Milda (Vladimír Pucholt). She allows herself to be seduced by this junior league ladies' man, and becomes petulant when he doesn't contact her again. Irked by the 'stay virginal' party line of her dorm committee, Andula hitches a ride to Prague, right to Milda's front door, only to find him out working (read: chasing other girls). Milda's parents allow her in, but Milda's mother (Milada Jezková) is not at all pleased by her presence!

Loves of a Blonde is less political than The Firemen's Ball, but probably more entertaining because of its highly universal tale of young love. The Cezch New Wave's criticism of the failed socialist state is still there, in the lame decision-making of the committee bosses, and in the fake solidarity of the morale-boosting speeches made to the sister comrades in their miserable dormitories. The needs of collective labor have apparently resulted in a very unsatisfactory situation for the girls, who are as desperate to link up with men, any men, as are the obnoxious Army clods who come to the dance.

In only four or five extended scenes, we learn everything we need to know about Andula and Milda just by observation - nobody makes position speeches or pours out their hearts to the camera. We fall in love with Andula because she's so courageous and spirited. The morning after, when she emerges tiptoeing from Milda's room, Andula passes another local girl sneaking back from the bathroom. Both are beaming over the dubious honor of getting laid, proud of their little victories. Personal self-expression in the face of the official party line is to be celebrated, no matter what the price paid. The telling words come at the height of their sex, when Andula cries out not, 'I love you', and instead, 'I trust you.' Simple trust is triumph enough.

Once again Mr. Forman proves that observing human behavior is one of the best uses for a movie camera. This earlier film seems even less about actors acting out an author's ideas. When Andula goes to Prague, we get the hilarious and moving spectacle of Milda's mother (again, the terrific Milada Jezková) abusing both Andula and her own suffering husband. Mom must ask poor Andula 50 times what the young lady thinks she's doing here unannounced, and where she thinks she's going to sleep. When the Prague Playboy finally gets home, Mom's breakup of their clinch is a combination of screamingly funny comedy and tearful sadness as we feel for Andula's plight. God bless and protect teenagers in love everywhere.


Criterion's disc of Loves of a Blonde is a charmer, with extras that help fill in the holes for the uninitiated, 35 years after the fact. In an excellent interview, Forman tells us how he blended the efforts of amateurs and pro actors, and about his reaction to the film's Oscar nomination. His anecdotes paint a larger picture of filmmaking in Prague at the time. The boy who plays Milda was a professional who surprised everyone by taking off for London, where he spent ten years working menial jobs to put himself through medical school.

The deleted scene is an oddity because it was included in the export prints shown in the U.S., but not in the official negative stored in Prague and used to make this disc. It's a totally new scene where Milda tries to talk his way into the bed of yet another girl he's picked up, and it's just as funny and tense as the rest of the film. If Savant had to guess, he'd say that it was added to bring the picture up to standard American feature length.


DVD is doing for movies from other countries (World Cinema, should I say?) what VHS and laser never did - bringing out original-language quality versions of movies that only the most ardent festival hounds used to hear about. In just the last few weeks, Savant's had his eyes and ears opened by pictures as diverse as Moju, Heißer Sommer, Gohatto, Forgotten Silver, and Kyojin to gangu - all unique aesthetic surprises. Criterion's beautiful editions of more familiar arthouse titles offer improved subtitles and intelligent extras, that deepen our understanding of the films and the contexts in which they were made. And where else can you see interviews with a fascinating filmmaker like Milos Forman?


On a scale of Excellent, Good, Fair, and Poor, The Firemen's Ball rates:
Movie: Excellent
Video: Excellent
Sound: Excellent
Supplements: Interview Milos Forman, 2nd interview and behind-the-scenes on the transfer process.
Packaging: Amaray case
Reviewed: February 7, 2002


On a scale of Excellent, Good, Fair, and Poor, Loves of a Blonde rates:
Movie: Excellent
Video: Very good (a few scratches here and there)
Sound: Excellent
Supplements: Interview Milos Forman, deleted scene
Packaging: Amaray case
Reviewed: February 7, 2002


Footnote:

1. They showed us Jiri Trinka's The Hand in the 8th grade, right after reading 1984 and Animal Farm, and the effect was chilling. Trinka's puppet work may be what's seen in the Czechoslovensky Film logo at the front of The Firemen's Ball.
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DVD Savant Text © Copyright 2007 Glenn Erickson

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